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Top of the Class: Head Coaches

Continuing our Top of the Class series, we rank the top head coaches in the NBA today.

Eric Saar

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Basketball is very much a mental game that is won between the ears, which is where coaches come into play. The head coach motivates and directs his players. He gives them techniques, tendencies and other information they then use on the court.

Without the players, a coach would have no clay with which create his masterpiece. Without a coach, a team would just be a lump of clay. They need each other. When the two sides work well together and are on the same page, that’s when championships are won.

There is no single metric for determining whether a coach is good or not. While coaches get fired all the time, one way to see who the best coaches are is to look at who hasn’t been fired in a while (or at all).

The way you shouldn’t evaluate coaches is simply looking at wins and losses. That isn’t wise, as things like injuries and the circumstances surrounding the hire can impact their record. For example, a good coach can be hired on a young or bad team that continues their mediocrity and it isn’t necessarily indicative of that particular coach’s skills.

With that said, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best coaches in the NBA right now. With some coaches, there is a bigger sample size to judge their work and we can look at some of their past stops in the league to determine their ranking. Getting a buy in from your players is sometimes important as well.

6. Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors)

Starting out the countdown is Kerr. What a season. The rookie coach takes an already talented team all the way in his first year. Kerr really did a good job managing his team and getting players to buy in. David Lee took a backseat, Andre Iguodala, a former All-Star, came off the bench all year, until starting in the NBA Finals and winning Finals MVP. He managed superstars and played an interesting small-ball style that fit his personnel on the court.

He isn’t higher on the list because he hasn’t done this for more than a year and that team was already pretty good before he got there. Still, he deserves credit for getting them over the hump in spectacular fashion. Kerr was runner-up in the 2014-15 Coach of the Year race.

5. Stan Van Gundy (Detroit Pistons)

Van Gundy doesn’t have the same charisma as Kerr, but he has a longer track record. He took that 2008-09 Orlando Magic team to the NBA Finals with basically just a young, raw Dwight Howard and a bunch of shooters. As a head coach, Van Gundy has won 61 percent of his games and has more than 400 wins under his belt.

As the coach (and president of basketball operations) of these young Pistons, Van Gundy is already starting to get them back on the right track. He’s a smart coach who has had a whole lot of success throughout his career.

4. George Karl (Sacramento Kings)

It seems that Karl has had some trouble connecting with his stars during his various stints around the league. That, or he’s had some bad luck with the stars he’s ended up coaching. Either way, his strength is elsewhere.

Karl is part of the prestigious 1,000-win club, which includes only nine coaches in NBA history. His sample size of coaching is much bigger than either Kerr or Van Gundy. Karl has won 59.6 percent of his games and took the 1995-96 Seattle SuperSonics to the NBA Finals. He was the 2013 Coach of the Year.

3. Mike Budenholzer (Atlanta Hawks)

Budenholzer is on this list because of the incredible job he has done with the Hawks, leading a team with no superstars (but weirdly four All-Stars) to 60 wins. He is the reigning Coach of the Year, winning the award in his second year as the head coach in Atlanta after a spending 17 years as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs.

While the Hawks were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, Budenholzer is a very good coach. Atlanta is in good hands and he should keep the team competitive for years to come.

2. Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks)

Carlisle is one of the longest-tenured coaches in the league, as he’s been with Dallas since 2008. He’s survived the ebb and flow of talent in and out of the Mavericks organization and proved he has staying power. He’s won 59 percent of his games for a total of 619 victories throughout his career.

He helped the Mavs win the lone championship in their history in 2011 and has been a brilliant coach for years. He’ll have his work cut out this year, that’s for sure, but he’s up to the task.

1. Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs)

Popovich is number one and it’s not really close. He’s been the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs for 19 years. Getting to coach the same team for nearly two decades is unheard of in the NBA. He’s a huge reason for the Spurs’ success and will be able to coach the team until he decides he’s done.

Popovich is in the 1,000-win club – the only coach to reach 1,000 victories and win a championship with the one team – with 1,022 wins and a ridiculous 68.5 percent win rate in the regular season. Not to mention, he has NBA championships (and he’d likely have six if not for a Ray Allen three-pointer) during that span. He’s won three Coach of the Year awards already and may win more before he retires. He’s a legend.

Honorable Mention:

Doc Rivers (Los Angeles Clippers) – Rivers is certainly respected by his players and has a solid track record. He coached Boston to a championship in 2008 with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and he’s hoping to add to his ring total in Los Angeles, where he also serves as the franchise’s president of basketball operations.

Jason Kidd (Milwaukee Bucks) – Kidd’s coaching career got off to a slow start; remember when he spilled some water to get an extra timeout, made a power play within the organization, then forced his way to Milwaukee? However, he is really helping this young Bucks team improve by leaps and bounds. Kidd placed third in the 2014-15 Coach of the Year race. Kidd will continue to improve as he gains coaching experience and his players develop.

Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics) – Stevens was fourth in last year’s Coach of the Year race, as he took a Celtics team that didn’t belong anywhere near the playoffs to the seventh seed. Also, his out of timeout plays are quite legendary.

Kevin McHale (Houston Rockets) – McHale was sixth in last season’s Coach of the Year race. He is one of the outliers as a former NBA big man who is now coaching. He’s done well managing Houston’s superstars James Harden and Dwight Howard as well as the roster instability that happens when the wheeling and dealing Daryl Morey is your general manager.

Who did we leave out? Let us know your thoughts on these rankings in the comments below!

Based in Arizona, Eric Saar is an analyst for Basketball Insiders. He has covered the league for several years. He loves to converse about the NBA on Twitter, so follow him at @Eric_Saar. Eric graduated with honors from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Summer League Standouts Faring Well

Jordan Hicks takes a look back at some of the most notable All-Summer League Team players and discusses the contributions they’ve made up to this point in the NBA season.

Jordan Hicks

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The NBA season is in full swing and players are seeing their impact being felt throughout the league. Veterans continue to lead their respective franchises, and role players continue doing what they can to push the scales in their team’s favor.

While the more tenured professionals capture the bulk of the headlines, the first and second-year players often go unnoticed. There’s the occasional breakout star here and there, but for the most part, the young guys do what they can to find time on the court and help their club in any meaningful way.

Every summer, the NBA hosts the now-famous tournament in Nevada, the Las Vegas Summer League, where the stage is open for up-and-coming players to make their first mark in the NBA. Year after year, some newcomers supply the NBA loyalists with enough highlights to keep them happy until mid-October.

At the close of the tournament, a handful of players will make the All-Summer League Team – similar to an All-NBA Team for the regular season. Let’s take a look at how a handful of the All-Summer League Team members have fared this season and what their potential outlook looks like moving forward.

Brandon Clarke — First Team

The former college All-American out of Gonzaga University had quite the impact in his Summer League debut. Not only did he earn first-team All-Summer League honors, but he also took home the Summer League MVP and Tournament MVP, too. He was a statistical monster and a clear reason why the Memphis Grizzlies took home the coveted — to some at least — Summer League Championship trophy.

Clarke currently finds himself in a sixth man-style role. He’s sixth in the team in minutes per game and is doing plenty in that span. He’s averaging 11.8 points on 63 percent from the field and a more impressive 45.5 percent from three. He’s also bringing in 5.9 boards and just under a block [er game. His effective field goal percentage of 66.4 percent is currently good for fifth-best in the entire NBA.

In per 36 minutes, that would be 20.1 points, 10 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on average. He’s not getting starter minutes just yet, but it’s more than safe to say that the Memphis Grizzlies are receiving incredible value out of their 21st overall pick.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker — First Team

Selected with the 17th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Alexander-Walker contributed in a big way during the Summer League in Las Vegas. His athleticism is clearly a strong suit but his tenacity on the court is what helps him get minutes.

He’s playing a tad over 14 minutes per game for the New Orleans Pelicans thus far, netting 6.5 points and 2.1 assists on average. New Orleans’ roster is flooded with talented guards, so it’s no surprise Alexander-Walker isn’t getting more minutes, but he seems to be doing an admirable job with the minutes Alvin Gentry gives him.

In a loss to Miami a few weeks back, Alexander-Walker went 6-of-9 from three and finished with 27 points. He followed that performance with 19 points and 4 assists in a win against the Golden State Warriors. His minutes have been sporadic so far, but he’s contributed when given a chance. As the season goes on, look for Alexander-Walker to find more time in Gentry’s lineups.

Kendrick Nunn — First Team

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all the young players this season, Nunn has proven to be quite a threat on the offensive side of the court. He’s averaging 15.3 points per game, good for third on the talented Miami HEAT roster. He led the team with 22.4 points per game in October and was averaging 16.9 points through the first 10 games, but he’s cooled a bit.

For a team that was already planning on starting the season strong, the fact Nunn has managed to carve out 29.4 minutes per night is a testament to his nightly contributions. He has taken the confidence he earned from his Summer League accolades and is supplying the HEAT with stellar play on a nightly basis. There’s a chance his scoring will continue to die down a bit, but he’s already proven worthy of his roster spot in such a short amount of time.

Rui Hachimura — Second Team

The Washington Wizards are currently playing the fastest pace in the NBA and oddly enough have the fourth-best offense to date, too. Hachimura is a key reason for this.

He’s averaging 13.4 points on an effective field goal percentage of 50.4 percent. He’s also pulling down 5.6 boards and dishing out 1.7 assists per game. His season-high is 30 points on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, and he’s scored in double-figures on 12 out of 19 games this season.

Hachimura’s long frame, coupled with his elite athleticism, allows him to get to the rim and create opportunities for himself as well as for his teammates. He’s still figuring the game out — his flaws on defense are easy to spot — but he has the ability to develop into a great basketball player.

Other recipients of Summer League honors include second-year players Mitchell Robinson, Lonnie Walker IV, Anfernee Simons and third-year player Jarrett Allen. Each of these guys has been producing for their respective teams in big ways.

The Las Vegas Summer League can sometimes be an interesting topic. Each year, second-year guys may or may not return to their Summer League squads and new faces abound. But if there’s anything that recent history has shown us, it’s that cream will always rise to the top. The guys that notch the All-Summer League honors will usually contribute to their teams almost immediately.

Each of these guys mentioned — and even the ones not discussed — will continue to cement their presence in the NBA and may very well become the regular season All-Stars of the future. It’s hard to decipher a player’s value based solely on box score statistics, but when one first enters the league, it’s never a bad thing to see the box score go up. For the young guys, it’s all about finding comfort and learning in which ways they can contribute best. Some may end up being the scorer, while others will develop into a defensive savant or playmaking maestro.

Whatever the future holds, remember the names above. They all have a solid chance of being the face of a franchise someday.

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NBA Daily: Three Veterans Reviving Their Careers

As the league continues to evolve, three players have revived their careers by changing the way they play. Chad Smith examines the mental aspect of these changes and how they are helping their new teams.

Chad Smith

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Life is all about second chances and what you do with them. Basketball isn’t much different in that regard, as most players and coaches will tell you much of their success is about opportunity. Sometimes a fresh start in a new environment is all you need, as three players, in particular, have proved so far this season.

Health is always a big part of these things, but there is so much more that goes into it. Basketball players are creatures of habit, and old habits can be very difficult to break. Changing your perspective on the type of player you are and changing your style of play simply cannot be done overnight. It takes a strong culture, the right people around you and acceptance to make it all work.

With nearly a quarter of the season in the books, there have been plenty of surprises and disappointments. When looking at the former, three guys stand out that many people thought were finished as NBA players, but are now reviving their careers after taking on a new role.

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers

The Carmelo experiment in Portland has gone very well for both sides. Two weeks in, the 10-time All-Star has relished his new role as another offensive weapon behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The league announced on Monday that the 35-year-old had been named as the Western Conference Player of the Week — averaging 22.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game — as Portland posted a perfect 3-0 record.

The last time Carmelo won the weekly award was March 10, 2014. Now seven games into his 2019-20 season, he is averaging 18 points, 6 rebounds and over 2 assists per game. His shooting percentages are above average, and he is being utilized much better than he was in Houston or Oklahoma City. He is not trying to carry the offense, but he is more than just a spot-up shooter.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has done a remarkable job of injecting Carmelo into the offense, and not altering it completely. By using his strengths on that end of the floor, it actually alleviates some pressure for Lillard and McCollum, while at the same time freeing up space inside for Hassan Whiteside to get better position. Everyone on the roster seems to be benefiting from Melo’s presence, and the team has reaped the rewards.

No one had doubts that Carmelo still had plenty of game left in the tank. The concerns were believed to be the inability to find a situation that was conducive to his mentality. Carmelo had been fighting the notion that he is not the same quality of player that he was in his prime, being above taking on a reserve role with a team. Now that he has bought in, everything has changed.

The 16-year veteran could be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Trail Blazers. After a number of injuries and a slow start for McCollum had them searching for answers, Portland had the longest winning streak of any team in the Western Conference entering Tuesday night’s tilt with the LA Clippers. When Carmelo is willing to make the extra pass and doesn’t hesitate after getting the ball, Portland has found success.

Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers

When Howard decided to return to the Lakers for a second stint this past summer, there were plenty of people skeptical of the move. The top overall pick of the 2004 draft has answered his critics in a resounding way. After several unsuccessful stops in Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, he has finally been able to get his back healthy and return to the floor.

After a dominating start to his career in Orlando, where he was the face of the organization for eight seasons, Howard went to team up with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. The two did not see eye-to-eye, and he made his way to Houston the following year. The injuries began to pile up and his production suffered. Never known as a serious guy that had a laser focus on getting better, Howard made himself a target as the losses piled up — and his frustrations were made public.

Now in his 15th season, Howard has finally bought into the system. His role with this Lakers team is clearly defined, and he has accepted it. He has embraced it. He has played to his strengths, which is exactly what the Lakers need from him. He is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Five times he has finished with the most rebounds in the league. He has had the most blocks in two seasons and has been named to an All-Defensive team five times during his career. As he nears his 34th birthday, he has been fantastic on and off the court.

While averaging 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game may not sound incredible, keep in mind that Howard is only playing around 20 minutes per game. The loaded frontcourt with Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma has played a significant role in that.

Just by watching Howard play, it is easy to see how much quicker and freely he is able to move on the floor. No longer plagued by back issues, he has been sprinting back on defense, running in transition, and finishing above the rim. The Lakers thought they would have the services of DeMarcus Cousins before the season began, but this may actually work out better for them in the long run.

Isaiah Thomas, Washington Wizards

The journey for Thomas has been much different. After struggling to find minutes, then thriving as the face of the Boston Celtics franchise for three years, IT found himself looking for a home after the hip injury that ended his tenure in Beantown after a deep playoff run.

The first stop came in Cleveland, where he was part of the trade package for Kyrie Irving. He was then sent to the LA Lakers where the fit simply didn’t work. He played just 32 total games during the 2017-2018 season and appeared in only 12 games for the Denver Nuggets after signing a free-agent deal. With his career hanging in the balance entering his age 30 season, Thomas found a new home in Washington.

Much like the two names mentioned above, Thomas has done exactly what the team has needed them to do. The Wizards knew they would be without their star point guard John Wall for the entire season. While they understood the backup role that Ish Smith would play, they needed another playmaker to draw the attention away from Bradley Beal. Fortunately for everyone involved, IT has been able to deliver so far this year.

The assist numbers for IT this year are on par with his average during his three seasons in Boston, which is a career high. The scoring obviously isn’t similar, but that is not what the Wizards need from him. Washington’s offense is a well-oiled machine that is humming along quite nicely. They have multiple guys that can score, and they do it from all areas of the court. The second-ranked scoring offense in the NBA is a clear indication that this team is more than just Beal.

Thomas may not be the same All-Star player that fueled the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago, but he has been playing his best basketball since that run.

Not bad for an undersized guy taken with the very last pick in the 2011 draft.

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NBA Daily: Wesley Matthews Adapting To Bucks

Spencer Davies has a one-on-one chat with Milwaukee Bucks veteran Wesley Matthews about his recent offensive success, last season’s hectic few months and how he’s adjusted to his new team.

Spencer Davies

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Adapt or perish.

That has been an all-too-familiar saying for over a century. It can be applied to anything in life that comes somebody’s way, whether it’s by a change of circumstance, an unexpected curveball out of nowhere or a new challenge ahead somebody did expect to happen.

Wesley Matthews makes a living out of adjusting.

Just this time last year, the veteran guard was playing in his third season for the middling Dallas Mavericks. One month into 2019, he was traded to the New York Knicks when his old ball club decided to strike a massive trade to create the future international duo of Kristaps Porzings and Luka Doncic.

Matthews’ stay in the Big Apple was short-lived — two games, to be precise. From that point, the Knicks agreed to buy him out so he could sign with a competing playoff team. Looking for a solution to fill the void left by Victor Oladipo, the Indiana Pacers came calling, and he got his wish. He finished the year and postseason in Indianapolis before becoming a free agent in the summer.

In discussing those crazy last few months, Matthews downplayed any sort of difficulty it had on him as a player.

“It’s just basketball,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “Obviously, different organizations, different schemes, different technical things just as far as on-court. But at the end of the day, it’s basketball. There’s two baskets. There’s 10 people playing at a time. Three refs. One ball. The basket’s 10 feet high. Same rules. [We’ve] been playing this game since we were three, four years old.”

The 2019 offseason brought about a fresh start. In search of a way to build around Giannis Antetokounmpo with some old pieces gone elsewhere, the Milwaukee Bucks came to terms with Matthews on a two-year contract, including a player option for next year.

Considering his past as a standout athlete at James Madison Memorial High School about 90 minutes down the road in Wisconsin, the decision was easy.

“I put in the work in the offseason, trained to be ready for any kind of situation I may face,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “As far as coming back home, coming back to Milwaukee — the opportunity just presented itself. There was a role and a need on both sides, and I’m happy to be home.”

For the Bucks, the feeling is mutual. Sporting an 18-3 record and outscoring their opponents by over 12 points per game, they are off to the hottest start among their peers.

According to Cleaning The Glass, they boast the top net rating (plus-11.7) and effective field goal percentage (55.8), plus the second-best offensive (114.3) and defensive rating (102.6) in the entire NBA. That’s what happens when you consistently get stops and get out in transition the way they have.

But even with all the success that Milwaukee has had in the first quarter of the season, Matthews sees something different standing out.

“Honestly, the ones that we let go, that we let get away,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “This team is obviously built to succeed on both ends of the court. Obviously, having Giannis is a tremendous asset to us. But a lot of ups and a lot of downs, even within the wins. [There are] ways to get better and an opportunity to continue to get better as the season goes on.”

Despite the point differential they’ve established, Matthews is referring to the losses — and even the victories — where the Bucks have had slippage. Whether it’s a few lackadaisical possessions in a row or a whole quarter, there have been a number of instances in which the team has allowed its opposition to make big runs and crack into a lead that should have left no doubt.

Take a recent trip to Northeast Ohio as an example. Going into halftime, Milwaukee had a commanding 20-point lead on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it wasn’t a particularly close game as the score indicated. But the home squad responded loudly in the third quarter, nailing 10 threes en route to 42 points.

It was a comfortable advantage that was cut down to a single possession game in the final period. Still, the Bucks maintained their composure and found a way to win in a raucous Friday night environment on the road.

Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer sees situations like these as teaching moments.

“We’ve had more close games,” Budenholzer said. “Last year, it felt like at times we were going long stretches without a close game. So hopefully, we’re learning how to execute down the stretch, play smarter down the stretch. Sometimes we haven’t, but you learn when you don’t.

“I’ve been impressed with the guys coming back. I think there’s a focus in wanting to get better, improve and I think you’re seeing it on the court.”

Speaking of improving, Matthews fits that bill. After an initial month of ups and downs on the offensive end of the floor, including an unusual night of zero attempts from the floor in Chicago, the decade-long vet has found his footing.

Since Nov. 20, Matthews has registered double-digit scoring efforts in six of eight games. During that stretch, he’s averaging 11.3 points per game on 45.2 percent from distance. Per NBA.com, the Bucks have been scoring 120.6 points per 100 possessions in that time, which is an increase of 10 before then.

Budenholzer figures that some of the slow start had to do with getting used to a new environment, but that’s not the only reason. More opportunities to get involved have been there as of late because his teammates are starting to understand where he’s going to be.

“I think he’s getting a little more comfortable finding some opportunities to cut, slash and backdoor people for some easy layups,” Budenholzer said. “Getting some free throws and he’s shooting the three-ball better. So you do those things and all of a sudden you’re getting to double figures quickly.”

Matthews chalks it up to the spacing of Budenholzer’s system that allows him to operate. However, again, he didn’t make much of the shooting woes due to the team’s success.

“It’s the early part of the season, you know? Obviously, it’s just getting familiar with a new team,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “Guys getting familiar with me, me getting familiar with them. Different positions, different areas.

“I mean, sports is like life. Everything changes, always. You have to adapt. You have to evolve. You have to grow. You have to get comfortable. So if shooting from the three is the thing that I’m struggling with…I’m comfortable with those going up.”

Matthews hangs his hat on the defensive end. He’s savvy in guarding his assignment and has been for quite some time. While he doesn’t defend many isolations, opponents are scoring just 0.27 points per possession on such occasions. He does an excellent job shutting down ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll too, ranking in the 98th percentile in the league, per NBA.com.

And yet, Matthews always desires more.

“Doing everything. Slashing, getting to the paint, making the right plays,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “If three-point shooting is what’s going down, then it’s just a matter of time before those start to fall.”

Matthews has been a staple in the Association for a while now. Most recall his breakout with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he spent half of his career defining what an ideal three-and-D wing should be. Unfortunately, that final season came to a crashing halt when he sustained a season-ending torn left Achilles in March 2015. The Pacific Northwest’s favorite “Iron Man” who played through the majority of his injuries could no longer do so.

That was the end of Matthews’ tenure with the Blazers. From that point on, he had to rehab and battle to get back to form. He admits that it took time to do so returning quickly from the setback, but when asked by Basketball Insiders if he feels the same physically now as he did then, he didn’t hesitate to answer.

“Yeah. Absolutely,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “I feel great. I feel like [I’m] defending like the old me, moving like the old me. Feel good.”

There you have it. Whether it’s been coming back from a major injury, switching teams or getting acclimated to a new system, Matthews has always been able to handle it.

Not many players are able to stick around in the NBA for 10 years. In spite of the obstacles thrown his way, Matthews has done more than that.

“I’m adaptable,” Matthews told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been playing this game for a long time. As long as they don’t change the shape of the ball and the rim, I’ll be fine.”

After all, it’s just basketball.

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